Here’s how the deaf and hard-of-hearing are struggling in silence in Hampton Roads

September is National Deaf Awareness Month. (WYDaily/Courtesy US Airforce)
September is National Deaf Awareness Month. (Southside Daily/Courtesy U.S. Air Force)

People with disabilities have to learn techniques to make it through everyday life and while sometimes they receive help from others, there are those who remain unnoticed.

“It’s an invisible disability, being deaf and hard-of-hearing,” said Eric Raff, director for the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, through an interpreter. “Everyday it’s a struggle to communicate and most people might not understand why.”

September is National Deaf Awareness Month, but that doesn’t mean the struggles for this community don’t occur year-round. Raff said one of the department’s main objectives is to educate the hearing community about how they can better communicate with the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

That doesn’t happen easily and he said one of the biggest issues is educating employers.

“A lot of employers don’t realize that the deaf and hard-of hearing are wonderful workers and skilled,” he said. “They tend to resist [hiring them] because they won’t know how to care for the working deaf and don’t want to pay for an interpreter.”

Raff said interpreters aren’t always necessary because of different technology. Depending on a person’s level of hearing, assistive technology can significantly improve communication in the workplace.

Outside of the job market, Raff said there are issues for individuals with the disability everyday that other people might not realize.

“Every situation you have to address with diplomacy,” he said. “You don’t try to avoid confrontation, but at the same time you have to be persistent and use each situation as an education opportunity.”

He said sometimes people can still refuse to accommodate those individuals.

In those cases, Raff said people of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community have to be prepared to file a complaint with the Disability Law Center of Virginia.

For some, the difficulties can be just simply going to the grocery store — in other cases, the frustration can be greater.

Shernika Holley, deaf and hard-of-hearing outreach coordinator for the Endependence Center in Norfolk, said she coordinates with individuals to find peer mentors and programming that helps them with independent living. For some people with the disability, such as herself, independence might come naturally.

But for others, it can be a struggle.

“Deaf people can do anything, it’s not that they can’t do things,” she said through a translator. “But we are here to help.”

Some of the areas Raff said he hears complaints about frequently are hospitals and law offices. 

Raff said hospitals tend to contract with translation agencies that only provide for spoken language translators and when there are American Sign Language interpreters, they typically aren’t qualified.

The topic of interpreter certification came to the Virginia Department of Professional and Occupation Regulations in 2008 after concerns were raised in regards to interpreter quality. Since then, Raff said there have been various recommendations but a decision has not yet been made on how and if a program should be implemented. 

For people like Holley, who experienced a high-risk pregnancy, this can be a serious issue.

“For my high-risk surgery my interpreter wasn’t certified and I couldn’t understand their sign language,” she said. “There was no explanation of medical terms, I didn’t know what was happening. There was a form I was supposed to sign and I couldn’t sign it because I didn’t know what all of it meant.”

Holley said interpreter qualifications can impact a deaf or hard-of-hearing person in serious situations but also just in daily life. If there isn’t a way to communicate, then individuals can feel silenced.

And as National Deaf Awareness Month continues, people such as Raff and Holley are hoping more that despite their disability, this community’s voice will be heard.

“Sometimes we struggle to find success and meet goals, just like anyone else,” Holley said. “But it is so important to deaf and hard-of-hearing people to make their opinions known.”

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John Mangalonzo (john@localvoicemedia.com) is the managing editor of Local Voice Media’s Virginia papers – WYDaily (Williamsburg), Southside Daily (Virginia Beach) and HNNDaily (Hampton-Newport News). Before coming to Local Voice, John was the senior content editor of The Bellingham Herald, a McClatchy newspaper in Washington state. Previously, he served as city editor/content strategist for USA Today Network newsrooms in St. George and Cedar City, Utah. John started his professional journalism career shortly after graduating from Lyceum of The Philippines University in 1990. As a rookie reporter for a national newspaper in Manila that year, John was assigned to cover four of the most dangerous cities in Metro Manila. Later that year, John was transferred to cover the Philippine National Police and Armed Forces of the Philippines. He spent the latter part of 1990 to early 1992 embedded with troopers in the southern Philippines as they fought with communist rebels and Muslim extremists. His U.S. journalism career includes reporting and editing stints for newspapers and other media outlets in New York City, California, Texas, Iowa, Utah, Colorado and Washington state.